Another week, another essay on the struggling libraries of the digital age. This time it’s Slate.com:
[Once] a library without books was unthinkable. Now it seems almost inevitable. Like so many other time-honored institutions of intellectual and cultural life—publishing, journalism, and the university, to name a few—the library finds itself on a precipice at the dawn of a digital era. What are libraries for, if not storing and circulating books? With their hearts cut out, how can they survive?
Author Michael Agresta is hopeful. Communities can turn around the library’s decline, but only if they’re dedicated. Save the library, before it’s too late! At least the humans of New York have been making some headway in their battle to save the historic New York Public Library from destructive “renovations.”
But here’s the line that’s interesting:
Supposedly forthcoming is a plan that will preserve the [New York Public Library’s] Snead stacks as part of a new circulating library, allowing patrons to see and experience the historic stack design, which has been off-limits to visitors up until now. This plan should satisfy preservationists, if not scholars hoping to keep the research collection intact.
That seems to be all the journalists think we can hope for from our nation’s greatest public libraries: they’ll keep on circulating the books that appeal to a majority of readers, but leave the scholars out in the cold.
It’s true that independent scholars, who aren’t professionally affiliated with a university but still do research, are a minority. It’s also true that the information in scholarly books is quieter and more reserved than the vast noise of the internet, and much less popular. But that information is also more deeply considered, better researched, more objective. Not all scholarly books are good; there are terrible ones. Lots of them. But there are also scholarly books that contain treasuries of unbiased knowledge about history, politics, culture, science, and so on — sometimes the culmination of decades of work from one lonely, brilliant human mind.
Why shouldn’t that priceless research be accessible to anyone who wants to look deeper than the maddening echo chamber of internet journalism? As a culture we stand to lose a great deal if no one outside of a hyper-professionalized academia has access to the conversation of people who are experts, as opposed to mere celebrities, in their fields. Libraries could even become a center for teaching the tools of research — how to pursue self-directed learning and curate your own reading throughout life. Because what do research skills mostly look like in the digital world? Step one: Google it. Step two: Look at Wikipedia. Step three: ??????? It’s that third step that we’ve lost, and that we need to recover.
It probably won’t make much of a splash in the world, when those research collections are quietly shuffled off and hidden in closets. But once they’re gone, we may have a much harder time finding our way out of the echo chamber.